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Alan Sparhawk on 20 Below Studio

Did you originally envision 20 Below as a place to record others' work as well as your own?

-not really. mimi and i moved into this house and the basement looked like it would work as a studio. we had the equipment from recently recording "songs for a dead pilot" and figured it would be a great space to rehearse and do a little recording. once we'd built the walls and made it all official, i thought maybe it would be interesting to try to record some friends. at the time there wasn't any recording places in town besides one or two full-on 24 track studios. there were a few people who did 4-track recording, but for lots of people, 8 tracks is perfect. i just started mentioning it to friends in bands, usually doing it for very cheap because i was still learning and didn't feel right charging people much to be my guinea pigs.

What are some of the tools you consistently use on most every recording project, and what are some oddball ones you've used just once or twice to interesting effect?

-early on i bought a joe meek one-channel pre-amp and i use that a lot. i would recommend that to anyone who is doing a little recording, but on a budget. it has phantom power, a compressor, and an enhancer all in one box, so it's easy to dial up. i have a small mackie board and the pre-amps on that are nice, but i like having another pre-amp just to have a different sound. i also have one of those a.r.t. tube pre-amps that you can get for $100. i don't use it too much lately, but it's fun to overdrive sometimes. i've recently bought a 2 channel pre-amp from crane song, which is this guy from superior, wisconsin who designs all these high-end studio components. it was kinda expensive, but it's very nice. it makes any mic sound 200% better. my mic collection is slowly growing. i started out with just a few sm58s, a small condenser, and an octavia large diaphragm condenser. all those mics were pretty cheap. i used to borrow this old neuman cmv 563 with an m7 capsule from our friend tom herbers and then at some point, i was able to buy one from him. it's a very nice tube condenser mic - great for vocals and any other quiet things. as far as effects, i use this very cheap a.r.t. rack thing that has a bunch of pre-sets, mostly reverbs and such. i don't like to use it too much because it's the sounds everyone has been using for the last 20 years. the trick is to try to use those things in an original way instead of the ol' patented gated verb on the snare, for example. i have an old traynor spring reverb that sounds a little more organic and timeless than digital stuff. i also have this broken ibanez delay/harmoniser that i nicknamed "the sickifier" because you can modulate the harmoniser, so it turns anything into a woozy, wavering mess. we used that a bit on the second jessica bailiff record. other than that, i like to distort things through stuff. you can distort through anything, and everything distorts differently. i like distorting reverb boxes - we did that on "just like christmas", "lil' drummer boy", and "will the night". i have no reservations about running a track through a guitar effects pedal on mixdown, either. i like the limitations of a small home studio. it forces you to come up with odd ideas. once i set up two ambient mics in the room, opposite each other, and suspended a small speaker from the ceiling on a wire. for the take i had jessica play her part while i swung the speaker around the room. through the two mics it sounded like a schizophrenic leslie speaker.

Tell me a bit about the construction of "the little red room", how long did that take to put together?

-it took just a few weeks. i have a little experience in construction, so i knew how to frame a wall and sheetrock it. once while framing, i had my screw gun all set to put a screw into this piece of wood which i was holding with my other hand, as i put my weight into and let her rip, the drill slipped off the head and the phillips bit went into the palm of my hand, still spinning, of course. i don't think i've ever bled that much before. i had to lay down on the floor for a while to keep from passing out. i designed it so the walls are at differing angles. this eliminates some standing waves and unfavorable resonance. i put some strips of carpet in the in the ceiling joists and suspended particle board over them. i put strips of foam rubber where the boards touched the beams. this, i think, deadens the surfaces a little more so it doesn't just resonate straight through to the upstairs. zak and i found a big heavy metal door in a dumpster at a construction site which we used on the main room, and i got a piece of thick plexiglass from the hockey arena in town for the window to the control room. the red paint was just to try to spice it up a bit. mim was kinda mad 'cuz it was the first project i did when we moved in. i think she would have liked me to do the kitchen first.

Currently 20 Below is more or less an analog studio. What do you prefer about that, and do you see yourself working more with digital tools in the future?

-when we first started, a good used analog 8-track was still the only option on a budget. digital multitracks are now a lot more affordable. i guess we are on the analog side of the fence as far as that ongoing argument goes, but i have recently bought the digidesign 001 pro-tools thing and am slowly figuring that out. i think it will be useful for editing, especially if we were to do like a soundtrack, where you would want to be able to move things around in sequence. i recently recorded the winter blanket and they had 2 of those roland digital multitracks and you could sync them together to have 16 tracks. we did the basics on my analog 8-track and then transferred them to the digital machines and did the rest of the tracking on them. that seemed to work very well. you get the benefit of some of the nice things that happen on analog with drums and bass, etc. and the compact affordability of the digital machines. they were then able to bring the machines home and add and fine tune the tracks at home and mix them at a later date without having to come all the way up here (they're from illinois.)

What's the story on the Russian spaceship mic?

-our friend ben durrant had found a few on e-bay and we bought one from him. it's a lomo small-diaphragm tube condenser. we had used one when we recorded at albini's so i knew it was a pretty good mic. it looks a bit odd,... but it's from russia!

Name some albums you refer to or draw upon as exceptionally great-sounding or well-made.

-it all depends on what i'm recording at the time. if it's a rock band, i'm not going to listen to "bridge over troubled water" and try to shoot for that, but i guess because of the limitations of what we have, i like to refer to some of the simpler, rawer recordings that have been done. i like the lenny kravitz record "mama said". it is very simple and very analog. "slide" by lisa germano is an amazing record, though i'm a fan of most anything tchad blake does. early kraftwerk records are always good for clearing your ears and stirring the aural tank. talk talk "laughing stock" is always inspiring. there's something that happens to your ears after a few days of working in the studio, listening hard to things for a long time. i call it the bionic ear problem. you start to be able to hear things more intensely than you usually do. the bad side of it is that you start thinking everything you've done up until then is out of tune and poorly played, but then you'll put on the beatles and they sound out of tune and sloppy, too, but it's the same songs you've heard a million times. that's usually a good time to take a day or two off to regain your bearing. the up-side is that after the long day, you can put a great record on like big star's 3rd, or "laughing stock" and your mind will just explode with all the detail you can hear that you never noticed before.

How has the studio changed since it was first operational?

-like anybody else, we started with a few things and added things as we could afford it. getting nice mics and pre-amps has been the biggest and best change, though i'm still happy with some of the stuff we recorded long ago before we had them.

What albums have you recorded there?

-low records (songs for a dead pilot, christmas, the exit papers, several singles), the first 2 jessica bailiff records, best boy electric, ballyhoo, darling, winter blanket, rivulets, the early americans, both, father hennepin.

What are some of your favorite projects / albums that have originated at 20 Below?

-it would be unfair to pick any specific ones, but i was listening to the j. bailiff records recently and i was very happy with how they sounded. we had a good time recording them. we were very surprised and happy with how the low christmas record turned out. we did it very quickly and weren't quite sure what we were doing. since my studio is so small, it's hard to do normal-size bands. i think soloists or duos are more comfortable and manageable here. every project had its charms and i appreciate everyone who has come and let me learn on them.

Are you a gearhead? Do you get picky about mics and effects?

-that's a relative question. mimi would say i'm a gearhead, but there's plenty of guys that know way more than i do. pull out words like "biasing" and "impedance" and i'm lost.

Do you have standard recording and mic placement tricks that you use?

-i guess, but nothing fancier than anyone else has come up with. after a while you learn what does what and you build on it. i like to be open to trying stupid things just in case something works. for example, lots of people put mics all over the drums, but since i don't have many tracks, i try to get the kit with just one or two mics. sometimes for drums, i'll put one mic in front down low and away a few feet - this picks up the kick and the rest. then i'll set a mic up next to the drummers head pointed at the middle of the kit. usually drummers like it because the tape then picks up what they are used to hearing. however, if the band is up for it, it's fun to try to find sounds that don't occur naturally. running a mic through a pedal or distorting the tape can be interesting. i've been into that lately.

How do you keep a song sounding live when it's actually recorded in many takes?

-in low recordings, we usually try to do all the instruments together. we just find we play better that way - for others i suppose it's different. we will then go back and add the vocals and extra stuff. i think the key is to know the song and have it down before you even go to the studio. i'm not a fan of "writing in the studio". again, it depends on who you are. some people work their ideas our while recording and it works well, but to get a "live" recording, nothing beats actually playing live.

How much should compression and reverb be used and avoided?

-it's up to the person. there are great examples of both sides of the argument. i think it's more interesting to avoid middle ground on comp. and reverb - especially reverb. just the standard amount is boring. either really USE it or try to make it work without any. i usually like to try to make a recording sound good before resorting to "fixing" it with such things. however, some of my favorite sounds are over-compressed drums and way-too-much reverb. mediocrity should be avoided.

What is the most indispensable item in your studio? Something you think every studio should have?

-i'm not too precious with anything. i think i could have fun recording with anything, even just the basics. if i had to advise anyone starting, i'd say to get a shure 57 or 58, a condenser mic, the meek pre-amp with phantom power and compressor, and whatever tracking thing you want - 4-track on up.

...thanks to Brian John Mitchell and Eric Amundson for their questions.

20 Below Studio: selected discography

1997 - Songs for a Dead Pilot - Kranky
2000 - Christmas - Chairkickers Union

Jessica Bailiff
1998 / 99 - Even in Silence / Hour of the Trace - Kranky

Best Boy Electric
1999 - Songs of Latitude and Longitude - Grand Theft Autumn

2000 - the Floating World - Accident Factory